Labor Day struggle for unions and Obama

Labor Day marks a rough year for President Obama and the labor union movement that had high hopes for him. Unemployment remains high, and unions are under fire from political conservatives.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Obama greets Hector Sealey, Safety Director, Ft. Myer Construction Corporation, as AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka looks on. At a Rose Garden event Wednesday, Aug. 31, Obama urged Congress to pass a federal highway bill.

This Labor Day marks a rough year for the Obama administration and the labor union movement that had high hopes for him.

Both are dispirited by the failure of a slowly recovering economy to produce new jobs and get the unemployment rate back down below 9 percent. And union leaders – an important part of any Democrat’s base of support – have been disappointed in Obama’s apparent willingness to readily cooperate with (some would say capitulate to) Republicans and business interests on economic matters.

"Obama campaigned big, but he's governing small," Amalgamated Transit Union president Larry Hanley complained to the Associated Press.

Meanwhile, public labor unions fought major battles to keep their pay and benefit levels – and, more importantly, their bargaining rights – in Wisconsin and other states. Their Democratic Party allies in Wisconsin lost the battle to recall Republican lawmakers, leaving the GOP in control of the state house.

With billions of dollars in help from Uncle Sam, General Motors and Chrysler emerged from bankruptcy and are paying back the bailout ahead of schedule. That was good news for unionized auto workers. Still, Michigan’s unemployment rate remains above 10 percent.

Meanwhile, the level of union membership and public support for organized labor continues to slip.

A new Gallup poll shows a bare majority (52 percent) of Americans approve of labor unions. While that’s about the same relatively low level as last year – compared with past years when the figure was as high as about 70 percent – it also reflects a widening partisan gap and “a greater politicization of union issues,” writes Gallup managing editor Jeffrey Jones.

“Now, 78 percent of Democrats and 26 percent of Republicans approve, a difference of 52 percentage points, compared with a 37-point gap last year,” he writes. “This could reflect a greater politicization of union issues given the fact that many state-level efforts to curb union influence were promoted by Republican governors often backed by a Republican-controlled legislature.”

The demographic profile of the labor movement tells part of the political story.

Unlike a time when most unionized workers toiled in factories and mines, most today are public employees – teachers, police officers, firefighters, and office workers among them – on government payrolls.

Last year’s elections saw Republicans (including some tea partyers) making important gains, not just in the US House of Representatives but at the state level as well. And with economic difficulties hitting state and local governments, plus strong anti-government feelings reflected in the tea party movement, labor unions are feeling under siege.

"Over the last year, there has been a remarkably rapid deterioration in the bargaining power of labor unions and of workers in general who work for public sector employers," Gary Burtless, a former Labor Department economist now with the Brookings Institution, told Voice of America.

Salaries have not kept up with gains in productivity, he says, and workers are getting less of a share of the value that is produced by companies, while owners and top managers are getting bigger rewards.

"The pendulum has swung a long way," Ross Eisenbrey, a vice president of the liberal Economic Policy Institute, told the AP. "In the next year, I think all unions can really hope for is to keep more bad things from happening and to get as much of a jobs program enacted as possible."

At a recent Monitor-hosted breakfast, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka indicated the difficulties in the labor movement’s relationship with President Obama.

If Obama’s jobs speech this Thursday does not “propose bold solutions on the jobs crisis,” and consists of “nibbling around the edge” of the issue, Trumka said, “history will judge him and I think working people will judge him.”

Labor Day for Obama could be a tryout for the jobs program he’s about to unveil. Together with Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, Obama will visit Detroit Monday to celebrate Labor Day with workers and their families as well as to discuss his efforts to create jobs.

Republicans have taken to calling Obama “President Zero” for the no net gain in jobs last month, so it could be a crucial week for the President and for labor unions.

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